You never know what will come your way, when and where. That certainly goes for information, possibly the most searched ‘item’ going, which is possibly the reason why the world is enmeshed in a web of agents and double agents. This brings to mind the American MAD magazine which ran a comic strip called ‘Spy vs Spy,’ a very cloak-and-dagger stuff, featuring one character dressed all in black and one all in white. Wikipedia says it was created by a Cuban expatriate cartoonist called Antonio Prohias to parody Cold War ideologies. First published as a comic book in 1952, it metamorphised into a widely circulated and influential magazine that freely lampooned politics and culture. As college-goers in the 1970s, we were total fans!
But, to return to our flight path, words scratched on a piece of paper that fell out of a handbag I was clearing out recently reminded me of a conversation with a fellow passenger as we flew over the Atlantic a few years ago. He was associated with a big hotel in London; his family had moved from Israel; he had three children; and his wife was a writer. One of her books, in particular, had made waves. That’s what was on the piece of paper: Two Prayers Before Bedtime… Nadine Wojakovski. Of course the book was ordered, but once it arrived, it went straight to the bookshelf, unread, until now.
The back cover of Two Prayers Before Bedtime suggests that it is intended for readers 11+ and that’s exactly what this ‘memoir and tale of love and loss in war-time Amsterdam’ is: a book for 11 and all ages plus. We all know what ‘war-time Amsterdam’ implies and many of us have read several books that have been written around the subject of the Holocaust. Among the most popular, perhaps, or well-known, is The Diary of Anne Frank, published posthumously by the author’s father, Otto Frank. Anne Frank, along with her mother and sister, died in a concentration camp in 1945; she was barely 16. The book is a diary she kept during their time of hiding in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Another best-selling novel is The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton, again based on the story of how thousands of Jewish children were smuggled out of Europe and relocated to safer countries, thanks to the courage of one Dutch woman, Truus Wijsmuller or Taante Truus, as she was called. The operation got more and more dangerous as countries closed their borders — in the way countries in recent times closed their borders to Syrian refugees or refused help to the earthquake-affected in Syria, or how nations across the world have made a policy of refusing asylum to people fleeing homelands in the wake of civil war and persecution. Truus Wijsmuller didn’t have children of her own, but she went to audacious lengths to bring Jewish children to safety. At one point, she even approached Adolf Eichmann, architect of the infamous ‘Final Solution’ plan for the genocide of Jews during the Second World War, for assistance. You can read more about this book in Wordsworld January 2021.
Two Prayers Before Bedtime does not possess anywhere near Clayton’s power or literary finesse; you might even say that other Holocaust writings record even more tragic stories. Even so, it’s told from the heart and, as one young reviewer said, it certainly teaches a lot about war. The author tells us that the ‘tale/memoir is based on the true story of my grandmother, Cilla Bitterman, and how she and my grandfather Edmund, had to send their daughter (my mother) Renata and son Anton into hiding during World War Two. It also tells of the heroic efforts of Vie and Aart Versnel, who risked their lives to hide a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Holland.’ Photographs at the end of the book bring the experience closer. Importantly, the book is yet another reminder of the mindlessness of war and the consequences of hatred and discrimination. It is also a testament to the human spirit which is continuously called upon to reveal itself by rising above acts of inhumanity, whether perpetrated by individuals or prompted by the state. It reiterates the faith that the human spirit will always prevail.
It appears that Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth is the most sought-after book in Tihar jail, Delhi: ‘…every week at least 10 inmates borrow the book,’ says a newspaper report.
The book fictionalises the lived experiences through the characters of Cilla, the protagonist, and her husband, Edmund, who are forced to send away their children, a boy of nearly six and a girl of nearly two, to safe homes far away arranged by Resistance forces. They themselves have to move, in hiding and to hide, to and in different places, in different cities/towns, to escape the gestapo, the Nazi police. They somehow survive despite having to live in dark, cramped accommodation, extremely limited access to toilet facilities, little food, and hardly any fresh air. Days, weeks, months drag along with seemingly no end to the war in sight. The worst punishment is having to be separated from their little children; they yearn for news of them.
Very occasionally, they catch a reprieve, as when they hide in the attic in the home of Hans and Ella Bok: ‘The attic was a large space that had been used as storage by the family. It was concealed in the ceiling of the second floor and could be accessed by a ladder. … the Boks had worked tirelessly to make the attic more comfortable. They sectioned off an area to serve as a changing room, laid down old carpets, hung curtains on the small attic windows, and brought in a table, chairs and many books.’
‘Many books’! In those most trying times, through periods of loneliness and fear of persecution, reading and writing helped get them past the tape. They read or they wrote; sometimes they read and wrote. Anne Frank kept a diary, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote some of his best-known books while in prison, Jeffrey Archer wrote a three-volume memoir, A Prison Diary (which I have just embarked on reading)… books were a powerful, positive antidote during the coronavirus-induced lockdown.
Two Prayers Before Bedtime is a testament to the human spirit which is continuously called upon to reveal itself by rising above acts of inhumanity. It reiterates the faith that the human spirit will always prevail.
It seems prisoners in Bolivia can get their jail time reduced if they read books! This programme, ‘Books Behind Bars,’ is modelled after a similar effort in Brazil! It appears that Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth is the most sought-after book in Tihar jail, Delhi: ‘…every week at least 10 inmates borrow the book,’ says a newspaper report. The fact ‘that it was written when Gandhi was a prisoner himself — in Yerwada jail — adds to its popularity.’
For Cilla, not all the hiding places were well-appointed, and by the end of the war, Cilla and Edmund had spent over 900 days in hiding; they had been separated from their children for nearly a 1,000! They were lucky because the family was eventually reunited, although they lost many relatives. They, like everyone else, had to deal with the after-effects of the trauma. Nadine writes: ‘The reminders were always there — a man without his wife, a wife without her husband, parents without children, children without parents, a child without anyone. Empty seats, empty homes, empty souls. The signs were always there — especially in the summer when the dark inky blue death numbers were exposed on the arms of the Auschwitz survivors…’
Hypothetically speaking, we are reminded that the world can do without more numbers being inked.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist